[Outlook]An artist’s widowLee Soo-ja, the widow of the late Korean composer Yun I-sang, made a big bow to President Roh Moo-hyun when she visited him at the Blue House. As the 80-year-old did so, it is reported that the president became embarrassed. Lee said she made the bow as a token of her gratitude for the restoring of Yun’s honor. In 1994, a year before Yun passed away, the Kim Young-sam administration worked to have him return from Germany to South Korea. The government asked him to apologize for his pro-North Korean activities. Meanwhile, there are some testimonies that pro-North Korean organizations stopped him from going home so he gave up the trip even though he had bought his plane tickets.
Yun became involved in so-called East Berlin Spy Incident, and in 1967 he was kidnapped by South Korean authority and sentenced to life imprisonment. But as Germany opposed this strongly, he went back to Berlin two years later. He had since worked abroad as a composer and professor and at the same time, was involved in pro-North Korean activities. The accusations of espionage and the kidnapping could be reasons why he became pro-North Korean. When he was severely tortured at the South Korean intelligence agency, he smashed an ashtray on his head in an attempt to kill himself.
It is natural and understandable that Yun had hard feelings toward South Korea. North Korea was probably able to use this to their advantage and approach him. Kim Il Sung gave Yun and his wife a mansion in Pyongyang, so the couple lived between Germany and North Korea. North Korea also built the Isang Yun Music Institute, a 15-story modern building in downtown Pyongyang. In a way, North Korea has stolen an internationally renowned musician from South Korea.
Of course, there is no need to judge the ill-fated musician according to his political ideologies. Art is art. We should not taint it with other factors. The completion of his opera “Butterfly Widow” in a prison cell shows his strong spirit.
He said, “As there was no desk in the prison cell, I put score sheets on the floor and crouched down when working. My hands became numb from cold so I wrote a couple of bars and then warmed them with my breath. I remembered chords that I wrote before inside my head.”
He continued, “As I could live inside my musical fantasy again, I forgot pain and despair and felt free again. I was inside a prison, but my soul was not kept within. I even felt happy sometimes. I was listening to music that was playing inside my mind.”
The incumbent administration’s committee to clear false accusations of the past validated some charges made against Yun, but it said the espionage charge was false. It also announced that the kidnapping of Yun, which was against international law, was a wrongful act. Lee probably accepted this as a restoration of Yun’s honor in the political field.
But as a South Korean, I found one thing about Yun hard to understand. He said, “Whenever I meet with Kim Il Sung, I feel respect for him. Whenever I am treated by him, I feel his generosity and humanity.” Yun thanked and praised Kim to an extent that cannot be explained by his being an artist.
His work “My Land, My People” is said to be his musical contribution to the Korean people. About this work, he said, “Such terms as labor, people and equality must be perceived beyond ideologies. Longing for the day of reunification, while bleeding from a torn-apart heart...” There are many examples that prove he promoted North Korea’s regime through his music.
Lee said she felt grateful that the incumbent administration invited her and corrected wrongs from the past. The South Korean government did the right thing. But does it mean that Yun and his wife have nothing to explain to the South Korean government and its people? I do not oppose forgetting the past and embracing them. In particular, Yun made a contribution to Korea through his music. He is a treasure to the country.
But there is a question. Can successful artists be forgiven for anything? Politics or power must not intervene in or damage art. But what if one praises a certain regime in the name of art?
It is good to heal wounds from the past. But there is a limit that a country cannot cross. The government should embrace Yun’s art but should have said what it has to say about his political ideologies. That is why his return home was so hard. It is the same with the media. In the press conference with Lee, nobody raised this question. Is it because they were overwhelmed by the musician’s fame or were their senses numbed?
Lee should clearly address this issue before she leaves the country. The best way to cure a wound is to reveal it, instead of hiding it.
*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk